After 25 Years at Sea, Shipwrecked Lego Pieces Are Still Washing Ashore on Beaches in England

In 1997, a cargo ship was struck by a rogue wave. Among 62 shipping containers aboard, one contained five million plastic toy bricks

An image of random pieces of Legos that were recovered from beaches in England. In the image there is two large black lego pieces. One is an octopus and the other is a dragon.
Collectors have gone out to look for rare pieces like washed-up octopuses and green dragons. Lego Lost At Sea Via Facebook

Along the beaches of Cornwall, England's southwestern peninsula, locals and tourists alike have been finding more than just seashells along the seashore. Colorful ocean-themed Legos of octopuses with twisting tentacles, miscellaneous scuba gear, boxy whales, and other plastic pieces have been washing ashore for the last 25 years—a grim reminder of the lasting impacts of plastic pollution.

On February 13, 1997, about five million Legos were lost at sea when a rogue wave tipped a massive cargo ship dubbed the Tokio Express. Ironically, many of the kits were sea creature themed. The event, known as the Great Lego Spill, is the worst toy-related environmental disaster of all time, and beachcombers still uncover the shipwrecked plastic treasures today, reports Mindy Weisberger for Live Science.

An image of Lego diver's flippers arranged in symmetrical rows.
Arnold gathered a total of 240 Lego diver's flippers during the beach clean-up event in 2017. Rob Arnold

The Lego pieces aboard the Tokio Express were among 62 shipping containers that tumbled off the vessel. The ship was en route to New York after it loaded its cargo in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, when an unpredictable 28-foot wave smashed into a cargo ship 20 miles off the mainland, reports Jackie Butler for Cornwall Live. Other items swept to sea included 10,000 disposable lighters, superglue, and other hazardous chemicals. 

Ever since, collectors have gone out to look for "rare" pieces like octopuses and green dragons. Tracey Williams—a Cornwall local, beachcomber, and environmental campaigner—has documented the Lego spill for years on "Lego Lost at Sea" social media pages via Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. More recently, she published AdriftThe Curious Tale of Lego Lost at Sea, a book detailing the Lego incident.

Though the wayward novelties may inspire wonder, the tiny bricks highlight plastic pollution's impact on oceans. Out of the 4,756,940 Lego pieces on board, about 3,178,807 were light enough to float and are what is commonly found across 40 beaches in Cornwall, eported Mario Cacciottolo for the BBC in 2014. For example, small plastic flowers and mini diver's flippers are regularly seen along the shores.

"What we're finding now are the pieces that sank as well as the pieces that floated," Williams tells Live Science. "It's providing us with an insight into what happens to plastic in the ocean, how far it drifts — both on the surface of the ocean but also along the seabed — and what happens to it as it breaks down." 

An image of small plastic lego pieces against a white background. Some are in the shape of flowers.
Small plastic flowers and mini diver's flippers are regularly seen along the shores. Rob Arnold

In 2017, Rob Arnold, a local of Cornwall, and 12 other volunteers collected about six million pieces of microplastics from a beach near his home, reported Inverse's Nick Lucchesi at the time. The volunteers found plenty of Lego bits among other plastic pieces, including 240 Lego divers' flippers, on beaches two decades after the cargo ship tipped. 

Plastic can take centuries to degrade in the ocean, and as it deteriorates, it releases chemicals that can disrupt the reproductive systems of animals, Live Science reports. Future generations will likely continue to experience the aftermath of the Great Lego Spill. A study published in Environmental Pollution in 2020 found that after analyzing the structure of Legos with X-ray fluorescence, it would take about 1,300 years for the 1997 castaway Legos to degrade fully.

According to the IUCN, at least 14 million tons of plastic end up in the oceans every year and make up 80 percent of all marine debris found in deep-sea sediments and drifting on surface waters.